Getting to ‘yes’: Selling club leadership on improvements

Need to address maintenance needs with your club's board? Try these tactics. 


Team discussing improvements

When Echo Lake Country Club’s single-row irrigation system was nearing its useful end, it became obvious to me that short-term repairs and minor updates were no longer what were needed. A new, modern irrigation system was necessary. Though my club was not afraid to make improvements, a project of this size was going to require a selling strategy that built consensus among my club’s decision-makers.

I didn’t start by asking for $3.2 million; I started by pointing out a weeping head to my green chairman while playing golf. “Do you see this muddy mess?” I asked, and then I explained that our single-row system, installed in 1966, had a main line down the middle of the fairway and no valves to shut off individual heads. There were gate valves at the beginning and end of each fairway, but they didn’t function, so the only way to repair this weeper (and others) was to shut down and drain the entire system. And because we were in the heat of summer, the only time I could do that was after we had some rain so that I could shut down without risking our turf. We were in the middle of a drought that year, so I necessarily had to wait despite the obvious need. 

At the time, I thought that I was simply communicating a situation to my boss, letting him know that I wasn’t ignoring the problem. But as the next several years progressed, I realized that, in fact, I was embarking on a path that would ultimately lead to a major capital investment.

I began to build my case at committee meetings by displaying clogged nozzles caused by flaked-off swing joint corrosion, showing pictures of dry, scalloped fairway edges and wet fairway centers caused by inferior water distribution. I explained that a lack of a central controller meant that our water-use efficiency was poor and that we often had to schedule irrigation just prior to nightfall, which, of course, is a less-than-ideal cultural practice for diseases. 

When my boss asked, several years into this campaign, “What do you think our first step should be?” I was prepared with an answer, which was to consult an irrigation designer for an analysis and recommendations. I also “happened to know” what this would cost, and my boss quickly agreed. The rest of the story includes using the expertise of that designer to further sell the need and to ultimately move into the bidding and construction phase. But the key moment for me was when, at a committee meeting, my boss took ownership of the project by declaring the project was an important investment for our club and that, “if we are going to do this, we are going to do it properly.”

By preselling the need, my eventual “ask” was made easy by a boss who was eagerly on board, a committee that was aware of the issues we had been dealing with and a club leadership that understood the long-term value of investments of this kind.

It’s a lesson that was used many times during my tenure at this club (I recently retired after 36 years). Our annual discussions of our capital three-year plan meant that I was able to gently introduce future needs without making a financial “ask” of the committee. The phrase “we will soon need … ” became useful to me, as was, “I expect that we will need to replace this machine in three years,” for example. The items that were asked for — the immediate needs — had been on the long-range plan and discussed thoroughly, so that when decision time finally arrived, it was much easier to get to “yes.” Of course, there were always possible problems that might disrupt this plan, including the state of the economy or emergency needs in other departments of the club, but within the general boundaries of our budget, the golf course always received its fair share of capital funds.

I made it a point to speak the languages of business and golf during these planning sessions and preselling opportunities. Focusing on how our members’ golf experience would be improved was much more useful than discussing how our turf stand would benefit, and laying out equipment purchase requests in a way that showed a return on investment frequently got the job done.

If you are having difficulty getting to “yes” with your club, perhaps a longer-term perspective might prove as useful to you as it was for me. 

Chris Carson served as the superintendent at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J., for 36 years and is a three-time winner of GCSAA’s Leo Feser Award. He is a 37-year member of GCSAA.